This year’s Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship Startup Challenge, a competition for up-and-coming student startups, concluded on May 2 with the finalists pitching to judges over Zoom. Felicity Johnson, WG’20, founder of pet telehealth platform My Virtual Veterinarian, was awarded the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize.
Felicity recounts how she built the platform from the ground up over her two years at Wharton.
The Initial Idea
A few years ago, Felicity was working full-time in New York City when her cat Tiffany was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was really difficult juggling bringing Tiffany to her appointments and also having to go to work,” Felicity recalled. “I often wished that I could have just scheduled a virtual appointment, been able to show the veterinarian what she was doing, and get advice on what I could do for her at home.”
When Felicity applied to Wharton to get her MBA, she knew she wanted to start a company that was animal-centric and tech-enabled. Since high school she had volunteered at no-kill shelters and knew that her passion for animal care was shared. She knew she could use her software engineering skills to help more animals in need.
“It just made a lot of sense to me that someone should create the opportunity to facilitate telemedicine appointments,” she said.
Helping Pets and Vets Alike
During the first week of classes Felicity met John Hurst, WG’20, V’20, who would later become My Virtual Veterinarian’s Strategic Advisor. At the time, John was the only student in both Wharton and Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
With John on board, Felicity pitched My Virtual Veterinarian in three marketing classes and enhanced the venture under her professors’ guidance. “John and I ended up spending a lot of time together on it — going to practices to shadow together, going to conferences together.”
Soon, the team encountered their first hurdle. Vets weren’t convinced that a new virtual platform would fit in with their workflow. John, a veterinary student, helped legitimize the benefits. Felicity interviewed vets to gather more information about their most frequent pain points. A common frustration they shared was the frequent calls, texts, and emails from pet owners made without an appointment or payment.
“By using this platform, you’re able to fill any spare time or cancellations or no-shows,” Felicity explained. “It’s not replacing an in-person visit; rather, it’s augmenting your business by allowing you to fill any excess inventory and go from earning $0 during that time to earning $50.”
Using Resources at Wharton
Felicity chose to study Entrepreneurship and Marketing & Operations Management because from a business perspective, she believed they were the “three key elements” that would get her startup off the ground.
Classes like Entrepreneurship, Advertising Management, Operations Strategy, and Entrepreneurial Marketing shaped My Virtual Veterinarian’s business model. Felicity and John met with OIDD Prof. Hummy Song to discuss her research on hospital optimization to find parallels with their use of telemedicine. Prof. Martin Lautman, who taught their Entrepreneurial Marketing course, also serves as an advisor for My Virtual Veterinarian.
Advisors for VIP-C and VIP-X, Penn’s startup incubator and accelerator, also weighed in. “It’s amazing how people in the student and alumni network are incredibly willing to help out,” Felicity added.
The Startup Challenge itself proved to be a resource, too. She appreciated the real-time feedback from the judges, and a couple of judges even offered to connect her with people in their network, which was “encouraging.”
Adapting to COVID-19
The pandemic has sparked increased demand for My Virtual Veterinarian’s online platform. In March, the number of users rose 300 percent. In April, it increased by more than 200 percent.
The limitations of lockdown have forced pet owners to reconsider their options for animal care. “The more and more people are hearing about My Virtual Veterinarian, their mindset changes. They’re thinking about how they can access veterinary care remotely, which was something that before coronavirus wasn’t necessarily something that they even considered, and definitely wasn’t necessarily something they considered paying for because there was no option to.”
With the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize and an additional $15,000 provided for legal, accounting, and strategy services, Felicity plans to grow her team. She is seeking to hire a full-time employee focused on marketing and scaling, and will later bring in a full-stack developer.
The future is bright for My Virtual Veterinarian. “Certainly there were times where it would have been easier to have given up,” Felicity said. “But if you believe in something and you are passionate about whatever it is you’re working on, then it’s worth it to keep going.”
— Angela Lin
Posted: May 26, 2020